Paying it forward by James Kendrick
"Bernie, you wanta get a beer?"
"Fred, I think I’m just gonna head home. I’m beat. See you tomorrow."
He wasn’t exaggerating, he was beat. Working construction in the bitter cold could really take it out of you and make every muscle dead tired. As he walked down Lexington the blustery cold was almost an assault and it sapped him the further he went. He was almost home when he thought of the good coffee at Mary’s diner and made a snap decision to stop in before heading home for the night. Snow was lightly falling but the wind was gusting occasionally, chilling him to the bone.
He was almost to the diner when the man stepped out in front of him and stopped.
"Spare a couple bucks, mister?"
Bernie looked back at the man who was obviously living on the streets. He had that look of someone trapped by circumstance and utterly miserable. He looked to be thirty-something which Bernie knew meant he was probably in his twenties.
"I was just going to the diner- let me buy you something to eat." The man looked at him for a moment, indecision written all over his face. Something must have clicked OK as he simply nodded. They walked the remaining block to Mary’s in silence and the man hesitated as Bernie held the door open for him. "It’s OK, we’re just going to eat something."
Bernie steered him to a booth in the back, the man’s eyes darting nervously at everyone they passed. Barb, one of the waitresses started to say something but then saw Bernie and she held her tongue. Bernie nodded OK to her and the two men sat down at the booth across from each other.
Barb came over with two menus, tentative and not sure what to say. Bernie handed her the menus back and said "Hi Barb, my friend and I would like a couple of fresh coffees and steak and eggs. Scrambled, well done, hash browns and biscuits. We could use a couple of waters, too." Barb nodded and scurried back to the cook.
The man hadn’t said a word this whole time and was obviously nervous as all get out. Bernie just smiled and let him settle in for a few minutes.
Finally the man said, "What’s your name?" "Bernie, yours?" "Petey". Petey was getting a little more comfortable and took off his tattered gloves that had more holes than material.
"So Petey, how long you been on the streets?"
A hesitation and then "Six months". "It’s awfully cold to be on the streets this time of year."
"No kidding." Then silence until Barb brought the food to the table. Thick steaks, fluffy scrambled eggs and all the rest. Bernie could see Petey’s mouth water as she set the plates in front of him. He waited until it was all there and said to Petey "Dig in".
The next ten minutes the two men ate everything in front of them, stopping only to drink coffee or water. When everything was gone they just sat back and rested, looking around and at each other from time to time.
Finally from Petey "Thanks, man. I really appreciate it." Bernie just nodded, nothing to add.
It was obvious this was the most comfortable that Petey has been in a while, but in the back of his mind he knew that soon he’d be back in the cold.
Petey looked at Bernie again and asked "Why’d you do this, man?" Not sure he wanted to know the answer.
Bernie thought about his reply for a while and then it all came out of him, almost in a rush.
"Six years ago I lost my wife and kids in a car crash. I started drinking, lost my job, lost my apartment, everything. I hit the streets just like you and spent a year there. I know how tough it is, everyday scrambling to keep safe, get something to eat.
One cold winter day just like this a man stopped me not far from here and offered me something to eat. We went to a place a lot like this one and I had the first hot meal I had had in weeks. He didn’t tell me much about himself and he didn’t ask me to talk much but eventually I told him my story. He was the first person who had been nice to me in a year and he didn’t ask anything in return. He treated me like a real person, something I hadn’t felt like in a very long time.
As he was leaving I asked him why he did it, fed me and all. He just said he was paying it forward. And then he told me someday if I ever had the chance it would be my turn. So I did."
Bernie dropped some money on the table and they walked back outside into the cold air and stopped just outside the door. Petey looked at him for a moment, not saying a word. And then he hugged him. And turned and slowly walked away. He got half a block away and then turned and shouted to Bernie.
"Merry Christmas" and then he shuffled away.